UGC has been a buzz-word in a shrinking world thanks to the ever-expanding world wide web. But how many of us know UGC isn't new at all?
OED - the earliest known branded UGC: Did you know the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the earliest known institutionalised use of UGC? As early as 1857, the London Philological Society (LPS) sought contributions from the English-speaking world (and by then there were quite a few colonies) for the creation of the first edition of the OED. The LPS decided to send invitations to every library, every school, every university, and every bookshop to contribute words - words that caught their attention, words that were coming into currency, words that people felt needed to be included into the expanding vocabulary of the language. People sent them in by mail to the LPS at London; words written on slips of paper to be included in the next edition of the OED.
Isn't it fascinating to see the tradition of user-generated words being assimilated into a language that sets no boundaries continue to this day? If the OED could do it for 161 years, why can't brands do it?
The Google Doodle: Larry Page and Sergey Brin designed their first Google Doodle in August 1998 as a tribute to The Burning Man (an Art and Community Festival held at Black Rock Desert, Nevada) - they wanted to use it to notify users of their absence in case the servers crashed.
The act of even touching a brand logo would be considered blasphemous in the hallowed portals of brand-building and marketing. However, Google users loved the Doodles so much that Google has followed it up with regular Doodles commemorating events, holidays, artists/scientists/famous people and today they have country-specific Doodles too.
The story of the OED and Google's Doodles tells us what's possible; brands must embrace change before they are forced to otherwise they won't be prepared for it.
UGC and Product: A decorative paint brand helped consumers design their own shade through tinting machines and a PC at Color World. Car brands have allowed consumers to customise their 'to be purchased' car's look. Travel brands provide an a la carte menu to design your own itinerary. Product customisations have caught consumer fancy across categories.
So, how are brands using UGC for Brand Communication? Apple is the world's best example of real customer testimonials in real life/social media. Many brands have benefited from consumers sharing their content - every share multiplies views exponentially.
The marketing and advertising fraternity spends a large chunk of its time and money on 'paid' brand advertising - a US $567Bn (the Global Adex in 2018) economy. So, what is the monetary value of User Generated Content?
The User Generated Content (UGC) Media Economy: Social media, blogs, independent content sites, and video content (YouTube) have now become 'media' by themselves. And this 'medium' now commands a US $180Bn economy (those are just the well-known global brands).
A quick roll call with 2017 revenues -
Let's take a step back to understand this multi-billion dollar economy - ten years back, Google (though strictly not 'User Generated Content') was the only one from this list that was making money. Everyone else was either not born yet or experimenting with a totally new consumer fascination to connect with, converse and share stories/pictures/videos in a virtual 'social' circle. Fuelled by cheap access to data and mobile connectivity, millions of people around the world were soon on 'Social Media', a medium created entirely by people themselves (bottom up).
A bunch of UGC/user rated sites across categories added power to the 'digital ecosystem': Tripadvisor for Travel, Yelp/Zomato/Swiggy for Food Discovery and Delivery, Reddit for Entertainment, Star Trek Online/Second Life for Online Gaming, eBay/Quikr for Bargain Hunting, Wikipedia/Khan Academy for Educational/Encyclopaedic Content, Flickr for Photo sharing etc.
Mass media, in comparison, has always been top-down. Content/assets have been created/provided by media owners and consumers have had a one-way relationship with the medium - consuming content given out by these media owners.
Their business model - Newspapers/magazines rely on advertising and cover price; Radio almost entirely on advertising; Cinema on advertising, ticket prices and F&B; Outdoor (OOH) media on advertising; and TV on subscription and advertising. Portals like Yahoo/msn/various news sites from all prominent media houses (CNN/ CNBC/NDTV/India Today et al) and Content sites across a range of categories also depend on advertising as the only source of revenue.
As you can see, the only thing that stands out for a revolutionary new medium is the way advertising continues to be an interruption to the content.
UGC is the future. So, how are brands coping?
You might have read the stat that some 90 per cent of the world's data has been created in the last two years (source: ScienceDaily.com). Over 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every single day and it's only going to grow from there. By 2020, it's estimated that 1.7MB of data will be created every second for every person on Earth.
How are brands utilising this massive trend? Are they building expertise to be able to reduce their dependence on Paid Media, increasing UGC that brand owners would be OK with?
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A simple metric: Brands can leverage the immense potential of UGC by making a few small changes:-
1. Monitor their own 'Paid: Owned: Earned: Shared' (POES) impressions month on month/quarter on quarter. A 'comprehensive view' is critical. Brands must have the same comprehensive view of all competing brands in the category.
2. Build Learning Plans on how to improve the above ratio in favour of Earned and Shared.
3. Monitor Brand Health and Brand Sales against changes to POES Scores - change what matters.
We always said Consumer is King - today, consumer truly is KING!
I was looking for quotes on redundancy and found this one: "A smooth sea never made a skilful sailor". Yes, the sooner brands adapt to this new consumer reality, the faster they will weather the future tsunami of consumer-led content/data.
Note: The data in the first table is based on the author's research from company websites and Wikipedia. The second table reflects the author's inferences based on the way media is used; paid media is classified as top-down media and UGC/UG media as bottom up.
(The author is Founder-Director at Mediant Communications, a new-age media and communications agency)